Tag Archives: film

Strong Female Characters

20 Aug

The New Statesman ran an article this week about Strong Female Characters, and how actually, they are really quite odious. Not in an ‘urgh, laydeez!’ way, you understand, but in a ‘this is a lazy way of satisfying our need for interesting women on screen’.  I read it because I was mildly outraged by the headline and came away agreeing with it quite vehemently. (you can read it too, here: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters)

A while ago I wrote something rather similar, at least based on its starting point. I too bemoaned the lazy attempts to make female characters ‘strong’ by not giving them obvious romantic motivations, equipping them with guns, etc. That stuff still stands, I reckon, so I’m going to reproduce it here.

“The film world is choc-full of sensitively portrayed, emotionally interesting, intelligent and personable men. It’s also got its fair share of sappy romantics, gun-toting action heroes, maverick cops, family men faced with difficult choices, cuddly pet-owners and lads about town. Film has all these characters and many more, and actors seem to be able to play any of these they like, in just about any sequence. This is why Daniel Radcliffe can play a boy wizard, a disturbed Victorian gentleman and a Beat poet all before he hits 25. And we love a bit of variety, so let’s not grudge them that.

What about the women? Think of the last two films you saw. I can pretty much guarantee that even if one of them contained a sympathetic and interesting view of women, or at the very least, passed the Bechdel test (that’s the one about a film having female characters who talk to each other about something other than men), the other one didn’t. Unless you make a special point of only watching feminist-friendly movies, in which case, props to you, but I bet you don’t get to the cinema much.

For a bit of light relief I here refer you to the excellent Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton, who did a great series of drawings of some lady superheroes called Strong Female Characters.  For your perusement and amusement: http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311.

Such violent bare-chested women are not everyone’s idea of a strong female character. That’s ok. That’s the point. As I said earlier, variety = good. But – they do seem to be the prevalent ones that appear in the movies. Giving a girl a gun is apparently sufficient for many directors to feel they have secured the goodwill of the lady demographic who are interested in something other than a romance. And ideally, said girl will also be hot, which will get the men onside who might otherwise be worried about dangerous levels of over-empowerment.”

So. That’s what I identified to be the situation when I wrote that, some time in the spring.

I return now to the New Statesman article. The hatred of ‘Strong Female Characters’ can be summarised thus:

“Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”

The author, Sophia McDougall, goes on to explain that ‘strength’ is the standard recourse for making a female character more than just an object, a shadow on the narrative. Strength is the substitute for any other characteristic. Strength becomes the only adjectival defining feature of the character. Strength is frequently portrayed as anomalous, ‘not like the other girls’. And strength is limiting, and also boring. We want characters with personalities! Characters that swing between being a bit dippy and useless and inspired and woebegone! Characters like people in real life!

McDougall absolutely rightly and sensibly says – it doesn’t make sense to ask if our favourite male characters are ‘strong’. All of them have different, unusual traits and ways of handling themselves in situations that may or may not be deemed strong. Some of them are unbelievably self-destructive. Some are crushingly indecisive. Some are arrogant dickheads. Tony Stark says he’s a ‘genius, millionaire, playboy, philanthropist’ and that’s a summary. He says that to Thor, a Norse demi-god whose biceps are bigger than Stark’s thighs, but even Thor couldn’t be solely categorised as ‘strong’. Thor (in his own, titular movie, at least) is headstrong. Among other thngs. That’s why these guys are fun to watch, and why we root for them. To shamelessly pilfer yet more of this excellent article, they expand across more than one axis of characterisation.

It’s also assiduously noted by McDougall that an apologist for the SFC phrasing suggests that ‘strong’ actually means ‘well written’. Well. That’s nice. As she goes on to point out, however, a) that doesn’t stop it being misinterpreted by writeres to make their jobs a bit easier, and b) it’s pretty rubbish that it’s considered a perk when female characters are well written, rather than just, y’know, something we should expect to see. ‘The Strong Female Character has something to prove’ she says. She has to be a character in herself but she also has to represent her whole gender, because frequently, she’s the only example of it you’re going to see for the next ninety minutes.

We know that there are three men on screen to every woman. We know that only a tiny proportion of directors are female. There are disporportionate numbers of male to female screenwriters, which is odd when you consider that the gender disparity in other types of writing is not nearly so great. We also, presumably, know lots of women. I mean, half the world is female. Even without the women behind or in front of the camera, there’s no excuse for not knowing what women can be like. Women are as flawed and unpredictable and wonderful and stupid and impassioned as men. But in order to see all these facets, there has to be more than one woman per film to demonstrate them.

McDougall concludes with this:

“What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or netiher, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martials artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men; as female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains. I want not to be asked, when I try to sell a book about two girls, two boys and a genderless robot, if we couldn’t change one of those girls to a boy.”

It’s a big change but it’s not an unreasonable one. Right?

Anyway. I’ve added my thoughts. McDougall’s article is really very good and I recommend it to you all once again.

The last thing she writes is a paraphrase of a performance poet. I like to think that in her titular statement, there’s more than a touch of Dorothy Parker’s Hymns of Hate. Maybe someone should write that and take this to the next level.

“I hate Strong Female Characters. They suppress my individuality.”


The Inaudibility of the Translator – originally submitted to the BFI Women in Film Reporting Competition.

9 May

Aren’t you a lucky bunch! This is an article I wrote for a reporting competition run by the BFI. Unfortunately, it didn’t cut the mustard (boo) because it’s an ‘essay’ rather than a piece of investigative journalism. Never mind. I’ll know for next time. Anyway, I put quite a lot of thought in to it so I figured I’d rather put it somewhere than let it go to waste.. so here it is, for your delectation and delight.

(Here we go)

There’s no doubt amongst critics, audiences and creators that film is art; a celluloid tapestry of complex interwoven threads. There’s no less doubt that film is also invariably a commercial product, and a covetable one at that. To the varying chagrin of some, worth is measured not only by artistic merit but also by revenue.

Given that films are often produced to be successful on a global scale, they must be relevant – or at least available – to a global audience. Just as a book or poetry collection would be translated were it to venture beyond its home borders, the same is true of films.

However, just as literature has been subjected to a maelstrom of debate about what constitutes a ‘good translation’, it seems only fair to ask if cinema has been spared this, and why, and whether this is justified.

Considerable scholarship has been produced in about the last 40 years when it comes to translated literature. Translation theory argues, these days – though not all critics agree – that translation is ‘generative’ – it creates an entirely new work, in and of itself – and that the process of translation ought to make the translator ‘visible’. The author of the translation should be just as eligible for stylistic accolades as the author of the source text. The rest of the world is only slowly getting to grips with this.

When a film script is translated, what is it the translator must keep? What can they lose? How do they balance a fixed visual setting with a fluid linguistic one? Are some films written with subtitles in mind, or do they jar uncomfortably with the viewing experience?

Consider the two versions of the adaptation to film of Stieg Larsson’s crime thriller, known in English as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, released in 2009 and 2011 respectively.

Some were mightily dismayed by Hollywood obtaining the film rights for what they considered an already excellently-made movie. The original won awards and praise on a global scale for its Swedish-with-subtitles presentation of the book. Why oh why, then, did it need remaking? There’s a short (and cynical) answer here: Hollywood wanted a film that they owned and they wanted it to appeal to a big audience. That meant a) casting Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomqvist and b) producing it in English. Subtitles, clearly, do not cut the mustard.

Subtitles create a certain atmosphere to a film that it isn’t easy to disregard. That said, they can be an incredibly effective and clever manipulation of generic conventions. The 2010 Norwegian film Trollhunter, shot in a documentary style, is prefaced at the start with a screen declaring the footage to have been anonymously sent to the Norwegian authorities. The subtitling of the film adds to the sensation that the material may be incendiary; that it is important that every word is caught and understood for reasons of national and possibly international security. Documentaries frequently subtitle speech uttered too low to be easily heard, even if spoken in the language intended for transmission. Subtitles make sense; they don’t just render this film intelligible, they add another level to it.

So in this context, dubbing the film into English seems somewhat unnecessary. Why would three English-speaking, Norwegian college students be tracking trolls in Norway and submitting their material to Norwegian authorities?

One may similarly ask why a Swedish journalist would suddenly find himself investigating a case where everyone involved, including the people who aren’t supposed to be, speaks English.

Asking these questions can help us understand what exactly translating a film does. What we want from film is an integration of the audible and visual experiences, so closely interwoven that they speak to a level beyond what can be conveyed simply by ‘language’.

If you can create a world on film which is realistic, it doesn’t matter, in the end, what language the characters speak. Nobody really quibbles about Brad Pitt’s Achilles in Troy not speaking in Homeric Greek, after all. It’s as if the directors have slipped a Babel fish in your ear. You can understand because the visual experience is so seamless that you can’t not understand. Location-specific films, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, can be tackled in this way – again, you’re not supposed to notice that they’re not speaking Swedish. They’re just speaking, and you’re understanding. Trollhunter could have been done in this way – it’s not beyond the realms of possibility – but, as described, why waste such a great opportunity to play on some generic conventions? It’s a lot cheaper and deliciously effective.

If there’s such a covetable prize for the audible experience, we ought still to ask why there isn’t more credit given for the translated script. Is a script-translator expected to assume the same ‘invisibility’ as a translator of literature? They may not have come up with the concept, but that doesn’t make them any less creatively important.

On the continent, there is far more recognition for the voice actors who help turn English-language films into French or Italian or German critical successes. Surely it should not stop there? No translator’s name appears on the credits for the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Yet somebody must have written the subtitles. Were they so wholly divorced from the film creation process that they deserve no acknowledgement at all? And even if they were – what they have done is still part of the viewer’s experience. We should at least be offered their name. We have Steven Zaillian’s.

It’s a small point, perhaps, but it applies more widely, too – not just to translation, but to totally reworking a film, or a book or play or symphony or poem. Every reinterpretation has value in and of itself. Instead of bemoaning ‘another’ adaptation or version, take a step back and think about it from the point of view of the translator. Since every film is an exercise in adaptation, maybe it’s time to give some more credit to the ones most obviously engaged in it.

Brainy is the new sexy: would Victorians have fancied Sherlock?

30 Nov

You don’t have to love every current incarnation of Sherlock Holmes to appreciate that considerable numbers of others do. If Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t float your boat, Robert Downey Jr might just, and if neither of them do it for you then maybe you like Jonny Lee Miller (although frankly, if that’s the case, you should perhaps consider having your head examined). Or, slightly further out, there’s Gregory House, the medical equivalent, working in a hospital in New Jersey. The variety of Sherlocks currently available to the consumer is such that it’s difficult to put it down to ‘man in a cravat’ syndrome, or ‘man in a suit’ desire. There’s something about the character that makes the way he is (currently) being played – whether in the UK, the States, the past, the present – incredibly compelling, and incredibly sexy.


What do they all have in common? Well, we know that from the books. All these Sherlocks are based on a sallow, languorous, stick-like figure whose hobbies include playing the violin (possibly not as well as he thinks he does) and smoking. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has an addictive personality and, probably, a mild form of autism. He likes things to be just so; problems to be solved, eggs to be served thus, a pipe to be packed in such-and-such a way. He is brilliant, but he is socially a little difficult. He is an observer of humans but he maintains an aloof distance from them, making a scientific study of his inquiries. He does not embark on personal crusades of justice, although he does have a moral compass. He takes on cases that interest him – and so invariably he appears bored when a problem that appears impenetrable to its proposer comes to him. He is, however, rarely rude (to peoples’ faces, at least) and behaves rather chivalrously in a way that we might find ourselves a little uncomfortable with nowadays, especially in his oversolicitousness for the women who come to him with cases. Imagine if you were his teacher when he was around nine. You just know he’d be the kid in the class who insisted on asking difficult questions and making your life harder. Precocious, obnoxious, fiendishly intelligent and dedicated to applying his considerable breadth of understanding and ability for lateral thinking to every problem he encounters. Bloody irritating, in short.


So what on earth makes this character so endlessly interpretable and generally delicious to womenfolk ? [1] And is this a recent trend?


It’s clear that in the last twenty years or so, there has been a move away from brawn and towards brain. You only have to look at statistics about couples meeting at university (I believe the figure stands at 1 in 5 couples beginning in HE) and the current obsession with the new Q in the recent Bond film, Skyfall. Moreover, those who acquire a reputation for intelligence are revered by all because, it seems, many people are just as happy to be shielded by a towering intellect as they are by enormous biceps. Granted, a brain isn’t going to keep your other half warm at night, although maybe we can hope that what the brain comes out with will keep them warm on the inside. There simply isn’t a requirement for a male to defend himself with his body any more, and now that the battlefield is one of minds, the war is open to women, too. And gosh, who’d have thought? It seems that, these days, the man who can wow us with his wit, his knowledge and his thick-rimmed specs is the one we’d rather go home with at the end of the evening. Take Avengers. Tony Stark, or Captain America? I know who I’d choose. And so ‘brainy is the new sexy’, the endlessly quotable quote from A Scandal in Belgravia, becomes the motto for a generation of nerd-lovers.  


If we look at Regency and Victorian literature – classic examples being Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, North and South and the like – we can see that maybe our fascination with this sort of guy isn’t that new. Fitzwilliam Darcy is clearly a well-educated, intelligent young man; he’s just misunderstood. Heathcliff is apparently ferociously unlikeable but that doesn’t stop him being incredibly attractive. Rochester is explicitly described as not exactly being a looker, but he’s clearly got wit and a dry sense of humour and has some great chat. The buffoonish Rawdon Crawley is nowhere near as loveable as George Osbourne, who in turn can’t beat the quiet devotion of Will Dobbin. Thornton is a self-made man intent on acquiring an education, as task which becomes entangled with his mission to make himself worthy of his lady. In all these novels, the self-aware, intelligent man is the one we want the heroine to end up with at the end; the self-interested, the buffoons, the braggarts are the ones we cringe to read about. I don’t think there is a woman in history who has found herself harbouring a secret crush on Mr Collins or Jos Sedley.


So clearly, our 18th and 19th – century forebears dreamed the same dreams as we do now when we imagine the kind of guy we’d like to propose awkwardly to us in the rain or send us an incredibly rude but heartfelt and intelligent letter by mistake. It’s no wonder that our Sherlocks are all different shapes and sizes and cheekbone-structures – it’s their minds, not their bodies, after which we’re principally lusting (well, mostly).


I do think there’s a disjunct, though, between the character Conan Doyle wrote and the other literary characters we all secretly fancy. Darcy and Thornton and their ilk are intelligent, yes, but they are physical and legal protectors as well as intellectual equals in a way that society made the norm in that era. The written Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, just isn’t the marrying type. He barely seems capable of taking proper care of himself, let alone anyone else. He’s not a guardian, except perhaps of public order. We don’t expect him to look after us; we don’t want him look after us. We just want to engage with him. Perhaps his standoffish-ness is part of his charm for us. He reminds us so much of all those slightly awkward young gentlemen with unkempt hair and big glasses who lurk behind dictionaries, textbooks, computers and lab equipment. We want brainboxes and geeks, these days, not just men with £10,000 a year and a disinclination to dance. Intelligence is valuable, and it’s taken a considerable shift of attitudes in men as well as women to come to this conclusion. That’s why our Sherlocks are experiencing new life. They draw so much on the original character because, thank goodness, the original character now plays both to our intellectual and to our emotional needs.  


I suspect that Sherlock was not the Victorian pin-up of choice. I think it’s a good sign of our times, though, that he is now.

[1] I don’t doubt there are gay men out there who subscribe to similar views, but I haven’t got one around to ask about it right now